The Monkey

Twin planetary forces have marked the week.

In the United States, the ugly battle featuring child soldiers—and you thought it was just Charles Taylor’s Liberia.

In the rest of the planet, the battleground is the World Cup. All sorts of surprising things have happened there, including Germany’s loss to Mexico in the opening game, Brazil’s teetering performance, and Argentina’s imminent exclusion from the final round of sixteen.

Yesterday saw a battle between the whitest and blackest teams of the tournament, and Nigeria won—but you’re pitching a nation of one hundred eighty-six million against Iceland’s three hundred fifty thousand.

The top-twenty FIFA rankings for national football teams worldwide, plotted as a function of population.

There is no relationship whatsoever between the population of a country and the quality of its football, with small nations such as Belgium or Portugal placing above Mexico or France—in fact, the disparity in country size is so large I had to plot it in log scale. This is not reflected in the FIFA scale: countries with ten times less people can be twice as good (or the opposite) as big countries, but the range is relatively narrow—as an example, Chile, Spain, and Peru are within ten points of each other on a scale of the order of one thousand.

One striking thing is the way attitudes toward Portugal have shifted. No one should imagine football is a level playing field: why should it be, if nothing else in life is?

Twenty-five years ago, Eusebio was the only player known internationally, largely because of his performance at the 1966 world cup, but now a host of Portuguese players and managers are world famous in the soccer world, and Portugal is the current European champion.

I’m amused when CNN’s Amanda Davies waxes lyrical about Ronaldo while the anchorwoman swoons, even though the Portuguese team has hardly done the bare minimum to stay in the tournament—in practice it means that when Portugal plays, it generates a huge groundswell, and some cynical soul might suggest it influences the refereeing.

Like music, sport is the career track of the poor. There are exceptions, such as the Danish national goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel—I once kicked a ball around with him when he was about ten years old—but his father was capped 129 times for Denmark and voted one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The son followed him into a successful career as a goalie, which is as unusual in sport as it is in music.

Poor kids play soccer anywhere—on the beach, on waste ground, or in the middle of the street. It’s a poor person’s game—often the ball is a rolled up pile of rags, and the goalposts are two stones or upturned paint cans.

It’s the one thing that makes them all equal, a game without class divisions. When I was little, one team was always ‘skins’ – all you had to do was take off your shirt and you were in full kit.

For kids who loved playing, and I was one, there was never an excuse not to play. And you can bet that somewhere in Trump’s ‘summer camps’ there are South American kids playing right now, a small consolation for the tragic situation in which they find themselves.

I get the illegal immigration issues—Europe has exactly the same challenges—but I don’t understand why families cannot be held together until a case is resolved. I’ve heard foolish arguments about this, comparing attempted illegal entry to tax fraud when it comes to family separation.

The tax analogy is just stupid, as it would be for other crimes—when for instance a burglar decides to take a three-year old along on a jaunt, if the burglar is apprehended the toddler will be returned to family, not interned alone.

There’s been some very extreme talk this past week, and I think it’s proper to remember Germany in 1933, and the consequences of personality cult and minority persecution—intolerance spreads like Ebola.

A few verses from Dave Bartholomew’s ‘The Monkey’ (written in 1957) are in order here.  It’s a declamation, so I guess today it would be called a rap, and it tells of a philosophical discussion held by three monkeys sitting in a coconut tree.

There’s a certain rumour that just can’t be true
That man descended from our noble race
Why, the very idea is a big disgrace
No monkey ever deserted his wife
Starved her baby and ruined her life

And another thing you will never see
A monkey build a fence around a coconut tree
And let all the coconuts go to waste
Forbidding other monkeys to come and taste
Why, if I put a fence around this tree
Starvation would force you to steal from me

Here’s another thing a monkey won’t do
Go out on a night and get all in a stew
Or use a gun or a club or a knife
And take another monkey’s life
Yes, man descended, the worthless bum
But, brothers, from us he did not come

It’s the choice of every man whether to descend or not.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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